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Review: “Dracula”–“From Darkness to Light”

NBC’s horror/drama/science fiction series certainly has a lot of balls in the air after this most recent episode.  Dracula is attempting to find a way to walk in the sunlight with the aid of Van Helsing, Mina and Jonathan are continuing with their wedding plans while Lucy is filled with regret, Lady Jayne finds herself becoming more and more infatuated with the exceedingly dangerous Dracula, and Renfield is captured by the duplicitous Lord Thomas Davenport.

The Good

There was a lot to like about this episode, starting with the obvious chemistry between the leads.  Meyers and De Gouw in particular shine as the two lovers separated by death who have somehow managed to find one another again in Victorian London.  The real sparks, however, are between Meyers and Smurfit (who portrays Lady Jayne).  The two practically light up the screen whenever they appear together, and this adds some much-needed electricity to their scenes together.  Indeed, their twisted and convoluted relationship is one of the aspects of the series that works really well, due in large part to the portrayal of their characters.

The true highlight of the series so far, however, is Renfield (Nonson Anozie), who continues to serve as his master’s conscience and voice of reason.  Whereas Dracula has a great deal of political vision and great ambitions, he sometimes fails to see the important things that Renfield can.  This makes his capture by Lord Davenport (undertaken outside the auspices of the Order) something of a blow for Dracula, and it might even lead to his undoing.

The Bad

Although there is a lot to praise in this series—the luscious set designs, the solid performances by most of the cast—it is still plagued by some of the problems that arose at the outset.  While its ability to bring together several different genres is what sets it apart, it also serve as one of its greatest weaknesses.  However, this may be just a matter of execution rather than of the inadvisability of genre mixing.  In one episode we saw not only the introduction and quick death of a new character, but we also saw Dracula’s continuing attempts to create a new source of energy and to be able to walk in the sun, the efforts of the Order to eradicate the vampire threat, the ongoing preparations for Jonathan’s and Mina’s wedding, and the Order’s machinations to control the oil fields currently under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  Any two or three of these would provide enough material for almost an entire season’s worth of good writing.  As it is, the show tries to keep too many balls in the air at one time, and as a result most of the storylines suffer.  For example, we hardly saw anything of Van Helsing this episode, and the angst Lucy feels at Mina’s impending nuptials feels rather trite and tacked on.

It seems to me that Dracula suffers from a similar syndrome to that which afflicts other high-concept series like Once Upon a Time.  Faced with the reality of network programming (in which a series has to prove its value over the course of a season in order to be considered for renewal), Dracula quite simply tries to take on too much at one time, and as a result it doesn’t really do any of them all that well.  Of all of it, Dracula’s attempt to find an alternate source of energy that would undermine the Order’s control of oil tends to fall flat.  The mention of it in this episode was no more convincing than it was in the first.  Let’s hope that they find a way to make this particular thread more compelling.

The Ugly

Despite the fact that this series has some splendid production values (especially for a network series), there were a few moments in tonight’s episode that were visually unappealing.  In particular, the scene in which Dracula takes Lady Jayne to what appears to be a mud wrestling match between two scantily clad women—followed by a steamy sex scene—was both visually and ideologically repulsive.  One might expect something of this sort from HBO (who probably could have pulled it off with a lot more style), but coming from NBC it all seemed rather pointless and not at all entertaining.

All in all, “From Darkness to Light” set up some interesting premises that will hopefully be followed through before the series reaches its conclusion (its current ratings strongly suggest that it will not be renewed).  It looks as though next week, with a captured Renfield being tortured, might be one of the most interesting yet.

Grade:  B

Review of “Dracula”: “The Blood is the Life”

As is usually the case when I start a new series (especially one I’m looking forward to), the first episode is something of a nail-biter.  Will it be good?  Will it live up to my lofty expectations?  Or will it be so profoundly disappointing that I spend the rest of the week pining over what should have been?  These are the types of questions that usually haunt my viewing experience, and such was indeed the case as I began watching the premiere of NBC’s Dracula.

Fortunately, all of my fears were misplaced.  The series was an unmitigated pleasure, and I literally cannot wait until the next episode. 

Part of this, I suspect, comes from the fact that the series is produced in part by Carnival, the same company responsible for one of my other favourite television treats, Downton Abbey.  Although American network TV can produce series with incredibly low production values, NBC seems to have struck a gold mine here, not just in terms of the sets and scenery (although those are gorgeous in and of themselves), but also in the casting of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the titular Dracula.  He actually does a passably good American accent (this Dracula is masquerading as an American industrialist), and his smoldering good looks serve him in good stead.  What’s more, he seems to have largely shaken the rather hammy style of acting that sometimes threatened to undercut his otherwise compelling portrayal of Henry VIII in The Tudors.

NBC’s Dracula takes the already-overdone story and adds some twists that actually affirmatively answer the question:  do we really need another rendition of Bram Stoker’s novel?  The series manages to weave together horror, suspense, mystery, and thriller in some new and unexpected ways.  Chief among these is the fact that the character of Abraham Van Helsing who, rather than being Dracula’s nemesis, is instead his collaborator against the shadowy, corrupt, and very powerful Order of the Dragon.  From what we have seen so far, he seems like a man as ruthless and vengeful as his vampire compatriot, which is rather a refreshing change from the way in which he is usually portrayed. 

The female characters also come in for some reimaginging, as Mina is now a medical student under the tutelage of Dr. Van Helsing, though there are already inklings that she may in fact be Dracula’s former wife reincarnated.  Lucy also makes an appearance, though it remains to be seen how large of a role she will play and how closely the series will adhere to the novel (most likely probably not that closely, which may be for the best).  Most fascinating, however, is Lady Jane, whose motivations remain somewhat shadowy but who, nevertheless, threatens to steal the show from its titular character.  It seems that Dracula may be investing as much energy in its female leads as it does its male ones, always a good sign in network television.

Fortunately, Dracula doesn’t answer too many of the questions that it raises in the premiere episode.  We still don’t know that much about the Order of the Dragon, and thus they continue to haunt the edges of the episode, much as Dracula himself haunts the shadowy corners of London’s streets.  We get the sense that they have been running a secret war against vampire kind for a while (it turns out that, in the series’ universe, the Jack the Ripper murders were actually committed by a vampire, and the Order mutilated the bodies in order to keep the rest of London from discovering the truth).  Although we know that they wield an immense amount of power (due to their control over oil), we don’t know that much about them, and that is an auspicious start.  It will give us something to inquire after as the series progresses (let’s just hope that they don’t reveal too much too soon, a perennial problem of network TV, given the uncertainty of future seasons).

What emerges from the premiere of Dracula, therefore, is a series that is, perhaps, too aesthetically and narratively sophisticated and mature for the network TV crowd.  Indeed, as I was watching “The Blood is the Life,” I could not shake the feeling that I was watching an HBO or Showtime series (which may have something to do with the fact that the director, Steve Shill, also directed episodes of Dexter and The Tudors).  However, it just might be the case that network TV is finally ready to grow up and produce drama that is mature enough for adults to handle (which may explain why NBC decided to schedule the series for Friday nights).  And I’m not just talking about the blood, though there was a lot of that.  Instead, there is a gloss and a tightness to the writing that suggests that this series may mark a sea change in the way in which network TV functions.  To wit, perhaps it’s time that network TV took a page from the book of the pay stations like HBO and Showtime, and started focusing more on quality rather than quantity.  After all, today’s savvy TV consumer, with quality entertainment now available in a wide variety of forms–such as pay channels and Netflix–is not as ready to settle for substandard fare.  Although there are other concept series that are compelling (Once Upon a Time comes to mind), they face the same dilemma faced by so many other network TV shows, namely, too many episodes and net enough story.  Perhaps Dracula means a reversal of this trend, but at this point it’s entirely too early to determine with any certainty.

Regardless, one thing at this point is entirely certain.  Dracula is an entertaining drama that is surprisingly good.  Does it have its flaws?  Certainly, but they are minor compared to the great strengths that were on display in the premiere.  The real challenge for the series and tis writers, however, lies in maintaining that quality and ensuring that the season as a whole matches or exceeds it.  We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that they do.

Grade:  A